The Visual Representation of the Empress Theodora

  • Anne McClanan
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Typologies also shape the visual record of the sixth-century Empress Theodora. Her representation provides both continuity and rupture with the traditions of depicting imperial women. Glorious messages of imperial might such as the mosaics in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna can mislead us into overestimating Theodora’s importance in her era. The Empress Theodora wielded less power than both her predecessor Ariadne and her successor Sophia, but several factors contribute to the disproportionate attention that she has received since the seventeenth century. An accident of preservation has left us the lavish mosaic portrait in the Church of San Vitale (see figures 6.1 and 6.2). While we can enumerate a few examples of Theodora’s image scattered across the Empire, her visual record comes short of that of the Empresses Ariadne and Sophia in quantity. Both her predecessors and successors warranted inclusion on coinage, but Theodora was absent from any coins, one of the core vehicles of the imperial image. The San Vitale portrait carefully crafts Theodora and her cohort’s likeness through the standard imperial iconography; it interests us here for its ordinariness in those official terms. The era of Justinian and Theodora was furthermore documented by a historian of the stature of Prokopios, who looms over the chroniclers of the following two centuries of the Byzantine “Dark Ages.” The contrast of her stately image in Ravenna with the scandalous incriminations of Prokopios serves only to further pique interest in her.


Visual Representation Imperial Image Sixth Century Imperial Couple Late Antiquity 
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© Anne McClanan 2002

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  • Anne McClanan

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